Jane Austen and Her Times
Chapter 7 - Society and Love-Making
The first of the published letters was written in January 1796, a time of year when such a scene as that sketched at the end of the last chapter must often have taken place. The season was far from being a gloomy one, however, balls and entertainments were going on all round, and the Austens had guests of their own also. These were their cousins the Coopers, in regard to whom Lord Brabourne, who being himself a great-nephew ought to have known, makes a most curious blunder. In his notes previous to the letters he says, "The Coopers, whose arrival is expected in the first, and announced in the second letter, were Dr. Cooper, already mentioned as having married Jane Austen's aunt, Jane Leigh, with his wife and their two children, Edward and Jane, of whom we shall frequently hear." This was in 1796, but Dr. Cooper had died in 1792 ; he had held the livings of Sonning, in Berltshire, and Whaddon, near Bath, contemporaneously until his death. The Mr. Cooper whom the Austens Rere expecting, was Dr. Cooper's son Edward, of whom Lord Brabourne speaks as a child, with his wife and their two small children, Edward and Isabella, then both under two years old. The Coopers are mentioned a great deal in the entertaining Diary of Mrs. Philip Lybbe Powys, from which we have already quoted, for Edward Cooper married her daughter Caroline. He, like his father, was in Orders, and was at first a curate at Harpsden under his non-residential grandfather, the Rev. Thomas Leigh, and was afterwards presented to the living of Hamstall Ridware, Staffordshire, by Mrs. Leigh, a relative of his mother's by whom he was connected with the Austens, Mrs. Austen having been a Miss Leigh. On January 21, 1799, Jane writes: "Yesterday came a letter to my mother from Edward Cooper to announce, not the birth of a child, but of a living; for Mrs. Leigh has begged his acceptance of the rectory of Hamstall Ridware in Staffordshire, vacant by Mr. Johnson's death. We collect from his letter that he means to reside there. The living is valued at one hundred and forty pounds a year, but it may be improvable."
The little boy mentioned above as coming with his parents to stay at Steventon, had been christened at Harpsden Church on December 3, 1794, and Henry Austen was one of the sponsors. At the christening of another little Cooper, named Cassandra, in 1797, Mrs. Austen stood sponsor. Jane remarks of the two elder children who came to Steventon, "the little boy is very like Dr. Cooper, and the little girl is to resemble Jane, they say." This probably gave rise to Lord Brabourne's mistake, but in reality Jane Austen was commenting on the child's likeness to its dead grandfather, not to its father, and the Jane the girl was to resemble, was Edward Cooper's sister Jane, who became Lady Williams, and was killed in a carriage accident in 1798.
Even Mr. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen's own nephew, does not seem to have realised Dr. Cooper's plurality of livings, for he says, "The family lived in close intimacy with two cousins, Edward and lane Cooper, the children of Mrs. Austen's eldest sister, and Dr. Cooper, the vicar of Sonning, near Reading. The Coopers lived for some years at Bath, which seems to have been much frequented in those days by clergymen retiring from work. I believe that Cassandra and lane sometimes visited them there, and that lane thus acquired the intimate knowledge of the topography and customs of Bath which enabled her to write Northanger Abbey long before she resided there herself."
The inference is not quite true, for if this had been so she must have acquired that knowledge before her seventeenth year, for she was that age when her uncle Dr. Cooper died, and it is probable that her aunt had predeceased him as she is never mentioned at all by Mrs. Lybbe Powys, who relates a tour she made with hiIn, his son and daughter, to the Isle of Wight. But there is no need for any inference of the sort at all, for Jane had another uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Leigh-Perrot--her mother's brother having adopted the additional name of Perrot-who sometimes resided at Bath, and it is obviously to an invitation from this aunt she refers in a letter of 1799.
As we have said, it was the season of balls at Steventon; quiet as the rectory was there were many large houses of the country gentry around in various directions, and entertainments of all sorts were then perhaps even more in fashion than now; to all of these the rectory party received invitations. In the second paragraph of the first letter, Jane says, "We had an exceeding good ball last night," and later, "I am almost ashamed to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together . . . we had a very good supper, and the greenhouse was illuminated in a very elegant manner."
In another letter, written later, she gives the following account of a ball: "We were very well entertained, and could have stayed longer, but for the arrival of my list shoes to convey me home, and I did not like to keep them waiting in the cold. The room was tolerable full, and the ball opened by Miss Glyn. The Miss Lances had partners, Captain Dauvergne's friend appeared in regimentals, Caroline Maitland had an officer to flirt with, and Mr. John Harrison was deputed by Captain Smith, himself being absent, to ask me to dance. Everything went well, you see, especially after we had tucked Mrs. Lance's neckerchief in behind, and fastened it with a pin."
Mr. Austen-Leigh says: "There must have been more dancing throughout the country in those days than there is now, and it seems to have sprung up more spontaneously, as if it were a natural production, with less fastidiousness as to the quality of music, lights, and floor. Many country towns had a monthly ball throughout the winter, in some of which the same apartment served for dancing and tea-room."
People in the country were then more dependent on each other for entertainment, there was no looking upon the London season as a necessity, and people could not rush about from one end of England to another for a night or two as they now do. During the long winter months, when the bitter cold and the cumbersome methods of travelling made any journey out of the question for most, to say nothing of the expense, balls for those in the neighbourhood of Steventon were frequently given, and Jane and Cassandra Austen had their full share, and seem to have most heartily enjoyed it. Jane herself evidently loved dancing, balls are frequently mentioned in her novels, and the actual dancing itself, even without its enjoyable concomitant of flirtation, seems to have attracted her.
Customs, however, then differed very much from those that now reign in ballrooms. In one way everything was more formal, in another more simple. The music, the wines, and the floor were less considered; young people got up an impromptu dance in a drawingroom very easily; and the champagne, without which no one would dare to ask their friends to a dance now, was then not considered necessary. On the other hand, the actual performance was more formal; there were no romps at lancers, no round dances such as waltzes at all; waltzes did not begin to be danced generally until 1814, and the polka not until 1844. In the beginning of 1814, when the waltz was just coming into fashion, Miss Mitford declaims against it, and calls it this"detestable dance." "In addition to the obvious reasons which all women ought to have for disliking it, I cannot perceive its much vaunted graces. What beauty can there be in a series of dizzying evolutions, of which the wearisome monotony banishes all the tricksy fancies of the poetry of motion, and conveys to the eyes of the spectators the idea of a parcel of teetotums set a-spinning for their amusement?" In Jane's time, minuets, cotillions, etc., were the staple of the programme, and toward the end of the evening country dances, no doubt danced with much precision and elegance. Deportment was then a necessary part of the curriculum at every girls' boarding-school; and the ways of getting in and out of a carriage, and much more of bowing and entering a reception room, were all taught as if the performer were to go upon the stage; every motion was regulated. It is true that the custom, so aptly illustrated in Evelina, when the lady was forced by politeness to accept the first man who asked her, and to remain his partner for the evening, a custom that must have been responsible for many sore hearts and spoiled evenings, had gone out in Jane's time. But it was the fashion, at what were called private dances, for any man to ask any girl he fancied to become his partner without previous introduction; at public balls the Master of the Ceremonies did the introducing. In Evelina's time, girls must have had many an exciting evening, many an anguished moment when the wrong man asked the honour of their hand while the right man had not come forward! Evelina made a terrible mess of things at her first dance. She refused the ridiculous little fop who first approached her, and afterwards accepted the handsome and engaging Lord Orville, who, it must be confessed, is a far superior man to Miss Austen's corresponding hero, Darcy. Evelina narrates her acceptance of him in a letter to her guardian--
"Well, I bowed, and I am sure I coloured; for indeed I was frightened at the thoughts of dancing before so many people, all strangers, and, which was worse, with a stranger; however, that was unavoidable; for, though I looked round the room several times, I could not see one person that I knew. And so he took my hand and led me to join in the dance."
Of course the fop was not one to take this considered insult quietly, he approached when Evelina and Lord Orville were sitting out between the dances, and asked,"'May I know to what accident I must attribute not having the honour of your hand?'
"'Accident, sir,' repeated I much astonished.
"'Yes, accident, madam, for surely--I must take the liberty to observe--pardon me, madam, it ought to be no common one--that should tempt a lady--so young a one too, to be guilty of ill-manners.'
"A confused idea now for the first time entered my head, of something I had heard of the rules of an assembly, but I was never at one before--I have only danced at school--and so giddy and heedless I was, that I had not once considered the impropriety of refusing one partner, and afterwards accepting another. I was thunderstruck at the recollection . . .
"I afterwards told Mrs. Mirvan of my disasters, and she good-naturedly blamed herself for not having better instructed me, but she said she had taken it for granted that I must know such common customs."
There is no trace of such a custom in Jane's times, her partners were always numerous. At the dances at Basingstoke or in the neighbourhood, she probably knew almost everyone in the room on familiar terms; and she frequently had a brother with her to counterbalance the brothers of her girl friends. She danced well, with vivacity and grace; we can imagine her appearance without difficulty; her hair encircled by some neat bandeau or coquettish bow, her high-waisted simple frock of soft white muslin, her curls escaping in little ringlets on forehead and shoulders, her hazel eyes dancing as she parried the conversational thrusts of some too bold admirer, even as her own Elizabeth Bennet might have done. She certainly must have been popular; a girl who can talk wittily, dance well, and who is bright and sweet-tempered must always be in demand. And all the time her mind, half unconsciously, was storing up the little words and gestures of the persons around. Everything that was significant, everything that was amusing was noted, and from this storehouse she was to draw many a scene to delight unnumbered people yet unborn.
In her time, the acceptance of a dance still carried with it two dances, or the twice going up and down in the minuet.
Foolish Mrs. Bennet, overflowing with the events of the evening, on her return from the ball with her daughters, thus pours out her soul to her satirical husband--
"Jane was so admired, nothing could be like it. Everybody said how well she looked; and Mr. Bingley thought her quite beautiful, and danced with her twice. Only think of that, my dear, he actually danced with her twice; and she was the only creature in the room that he asked a second time. First of all he asked Miss Lucas. I was so vexed to see him stand up with her, however, he did not admire her at all; indeed, nobody can, you know; and he seemed quite struck with Jane as she was going down the dance. So he inquired who she was, and got introduced, and asked her for the two next. Then the two third he danced with Miss King, and the two fourth with Maria Lucas, and the two fifth with Jane again, and the two sixth with Lizzy, and the Boulanger--'"At another ball poor Elizabeth has Mr. Collins for a partner--
"The first two dances, however, brought a return of distress; they were dances of mortitication. Mr. Collins, awkward and solemn, apologising instead of attending, and often moving wrong without being aware of it, gave her all the shame and misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give."In Northanger Abbey the hero and heroine first meet in the Lower Rooms at Bath at a ball, where they are introduced by the Master of the Ceremonies, but the subject of Bath is such an engrossing one that it must be treated separately in another chapter. In public ballrooms gentlemen wore swords, and ladies carried enormous fans; it must have required some practice to manage these respective weapons in a crowded room. Mr. Austen-Leigh says in a note, "Old gentlemen who had survived the fashion of wearing swords, were known to regret the disuse of that custom, because it put an end to one way of distinguishing those who had, from those who had not, been used to good society. To wear the sword easily, was an art which, like swimming or skating, required to be learned in youth." As to the costumes worn, we get an idea of Catherine Morland's dress in her partner's jocose remark describing the "sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings--plain black shoes." A few of the fashions we learn from contemporary newspapers, which thus filled their columns when foreign news was scarce. The Times remarks facetiously,--for The Times had not learnt to take its high office seriously in those days, -- "We are very happy to see the waists of our fair countrywomen walking downwards by degrees towards the hip. But as we are a little acquainted with the laws of increasing velocity in fashionable gravitation, we venture to express, thus early in their descent, a hope that they will stop there." (April 15, 1799.)
About this time fashion required ladies to wear an enormous pyramid of feathers on their heads, and many were the jests made about this extraordinary whim of fashion--
"At all elegant assemblies there is a room set apart for the lady visitants to put their feathers on, as it is impossible to wear them in any carriage with a top to it. The lustres are also removed on this account, and the doors are carried up to the ceiling. A well-dressed lady, who nods with dexterity, can give a friend a little tap upon the shoulder across the room without incommoding the dancers. The ladies' feathers are now generally carried in the sword case at the back of the carriage. (The Times, December 29, 1795.)With the soft light of wax candles--even nowadays sometimes preferred to modern brilliancy--shining on the long, clinging muslin dresses, the arch head-dresses and nodding plumes, the swords and the fans, a ballroom must have presented a most animated spectacle; added to which the dress of the gentlemen was certainly far more picturesque and becoming than that of the present day. The gay satin coats and ruffles, the knee-breeches and silk stockings, must greatly have enlivened the scene. The subject of dress is too large to be treated in the middle of such a chapter, but to gain any idea of the balls which gave Jane Austen so much entertainment, these things must be at least indicated.
Apropos of the minuet, Mr. Austen-Leigh says: "It was not everyone who felt qualified to make this public exhibition, and I have been told that those ladies who intended to dance minuets, used to distinguish themselves from others by wearing a particular kind of lappet on their headdress. I have heard also of another curious proof of the respect in which this dance was held. Gloves immaculately clean were considered requisite for its due performance, while gloves a little soiled were thought good enough for a country dance; and accordingly some prudent ladies provided themselves with two pairs for their several purposes."
The lady of the greatest distinction in the room was chosen to open the ball. Modest Fanny in Mansfield Park was quite overwhelmed when she discovered that she was expected to do this, in the absence of her cousins, by taking the first part in the minuet, an idea that had never occurred to her before. "She found herself the next moment conducted to the top of the room, and standing there to be joined by the rest of the dancers, couple after couple as they were formed. The ball began. It was rather honour than happiness to Fanny for the first dance at least; her partner was in excellent spirits, and tried to impart them to her; but she was a great deal too much frightened to have any enjoyment till she could suppose herself no longer looked at."
At balls there was generally a room set aside for the older people who preferred to play cards. Mrs. Lybbe Powys, in 1777, gives an account of a fashionable evening party--
"No minuets that night; it would have been difficult without a master of ceremonies among so many people of rank. Two card-rooms, the drawing-rooms and eating-room. The latter looked so elegant lighted up; two tables at loo, one quinze, one vingt-et-une, many whist. At one of the former large sums passed and repassed. I saw one lady of quality borrow ten pieces of Tessier within half an hour after she sat down to vingt-une, and a countess at loo, who owed to every soul round the table before half the night was over. The orgeat, lemonade, capiIlaire, and red and white negus with cakes, were carried round the whole evening. At half an hour after twelve the supper was announced, and the hall doors thrown open, on entering which nothing could be more striking, as you know 'tis so fine a one, and was then illuminated by three hundred coloured lamps round the six doors,over the chimney, and over the statue at the other end. The tables had a most pleasing effect ornamented with everything in the confectionery way, and festoons and wreaths of artificial flowers prettily disposed; all fruits of the season as grapes, pines, etc., fine wines--ninety-two sat down to Supper. . . . The once so beautiful Lady Almeria I think is vastly altered. She and Lady Harriot Herbert had the new trimmings, very like bell ropes with their tassels, and seemingly very inconvenient in dancing. After supper they returned to dancing, chiesy then cotillions, till near six."Cotillions were later replaced by quadrilles. In 1816, Jane writes to her niece Fanny--
"Much obliged for the quadrilles which I am grown to think pretty enough, though of course they are very inferior to the cotillions of my own day."But balls were not the only recreations Jane and Cassandra had; people were very sociable in those days; the sketch of Sir John Middleton's horror of being alone, and his delight at gathering together in his house all the acquaintances whom he could persuade to come, is only slightly exaggerated from the prevailing spirit of his times. People were always running over to see each other, always spending long days at each other's houses; hospitality was taken for granted, and was too common to be reckoned a virtue. Jane and Cassandra in this way were continually in touch with their nearest neighbours at Deane and Ashe.
It is impossible to resist quoting the following malevolent description of Jane Austen, so unlike anything we know of her; it was given to Miss Mitford by a lady who, it is admitted, had every reason to dislike the Austens, for her brother-in-law was engaged in a lawsuit with Edward Austen (Knight), trying to get away from him one of his estates! This lady says that Jane had"stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of single blessedness that ever existed, and that, till Pride and Prejudice showed what a precious gem was hidden in that unbending case, she was no more regarded in society than a poker or a tire screen or any other thin upright piece of wood or iron that fills its corner in peace and quietness. The case is very different now, she is a poker, but a poker of whom everyone is afraid."
And Mrs. Mitford professes to recollect Jane in girlhood as being "the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband hunting butterfly" she ever remembers.
The whole tone of Jane's own writings and letters redeems her memory from any possible reproach of affectation, and the evidence all points to the fact that though not averse from a flirtation, she was the very last of all girls to desire a husband! But it is of interest to record contemporary impressions, so as to show both sides of the shield.
The first of the letters in Lord Brabourne's book contains suggestions of a subject much more interesting than mere dancing or visiting. In the case of an author like Jane Austen, who has become the world's property, it is impossible that there should be any concealment of those affairs of the heart usually reserved for private confidence only. To fail in discussing such a point would be to leave aside a whole aspect of her life and books. Jane must have been admired, her vivacity, her wit, her gaiety of heart, her pleasant person, and her keen enjoyment of life must have attracted attention; we know definitely she had at least two eligible offers, and probably others, as she was the very last person to boast of such things openly. It has sometimes happened that those most worth having have lived and died single, for they are too fastidious, too difficult to please, to mate readily, while a commonplace girl is made happy by the addresses of any ordinary man, and gladly persuades herself to be in love. Jane, who had a peculiar and deep knowledge of character, could not be easily blinded, she would have required much in a man, and men no doubt instinctively knew it. Her tongue, we know, was sharp, she had a knack of saying sharp things, and those who did not know her well may have been uneasy under her penetrating insight. Those who did know her may have gathered from her perfectly spontaneous manner and absence of any affectation that she was entirely heart whole, and been thus discouraged from trying their fate. The extract naming her Irish friend has already been quoted, this referred to the late Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, at that time only Tom Lefroy, whose uncle was Rector of Ashe, adjoining Deane, and with whom Jane seems to have carried on a lively flirtation.
After telling Cassandra how much she had danced with him, she adds, "I can expose myself, however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago After I had written the above we received a visit from Mr. Tom Lefroy and his cousin George."
"I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I don't care sixpence.". . . Friday. "At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea." At this time she was twenty-one, and he twenty-three, but they do not seem to have been of such susceptible dispositions as many young men and women of their age.
We hear of Mr. Lefroy again in 1798, when his aunt has been calling at Steventon. The reference is a little perplexing. Jane says first, speaking of Mrs. Lefroy, "Of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her friend very little," and a few sentences further on remarks, "She showed me a letter which she had received from her friend a few weeks ago, toward the end of which is a sentence to this effect, 'Iam very sorry to hear of Mrs. Austen's illness. It would give me particular pleasure to have an opportunity of improving my acquaintance with that family--with the hope of creating to myself a nearer interest. But at present I cannot indulge any expectation of it.' This is rational enough; there is less love and more sense in it than sometimes appeared before, and I am very well satisfied. It will go on exceedingly well, and decline away in a very reasonable manner. There seems to be no likelihood of his coming into Hampshire this Christmas, and it is therefore most probable that our indifference will soon be mutual, unless his regard, which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first, is best supported by never seeing me.
It seems evident, therefore, that some friend who had been staying at Ashe previously had also shown symptoms of losing his heart to Jane, who did not take his affection seriously, and was in no danger of losing her own. Her prediction seems to have been verified, for we never hear of him again, unless he was the man to whom Mr. Austen-Leigh refers when he says--
"In her youth she had declined the addresses of a gentleman who had the recommendations of good character and connections, and position of life, of everything in fact except the subtle power of touching her heart."The other offer above referred to was made to her in 1802 by someone described by her niece Anna as a "sensible pleasant man," but he also failed in the essential particular.
Mr. Austen-Leigh tells us further of "one passage of romance in her history with which I am imperfectly acquainted, and to which I am unable to assign name, or date, or place, though I have it on sufficient authority. Many years after her death, some circumstances induced her sister Cassandra to break through her habitual reticence and to speak of it. She said that, while staying at some seaside place, they became acquainted with a gentleman, whose charm of person, mind, and manners, was such that Cassandra thought him worthy to possess and likely to win her sister's love. When they parted he expressed his intention of soon seeing them again, and Cassandra felt no doubt as to his motives. But they never again met. Within a short time they heard of his sudden death."
This incident may seem too slight and unimportant even for reference, but in reality it may have had a deep significance. Those who have studied human nature, know that there are here and there among both men and women, minds that are satisfied with nothing less than the best. A temperament like Jane Austen's, where the whole nature was extremely sensitive, and the mind extremely clear-sighted, would have required qualities of the heart and mind in a man to be loved that are not to be found every day. In addition, it would have been quite impossible for her to marry any man from respect only or simple friendship. Nothing but love could have carried her fastidious nature over the bound of matrimony. Such natures as Jane's are not facile: not for them the willing selfdeception which imagines love in any man who is an admirer; not for them the blindness which attributes qualities where they are not, nor the vanity which credits a man with every virtue merely because he has the taste to prefer them. Many marriages are made on these lines, and a proportion turn out well; but the higher natures, standing out here and there, require a sounder basis.
The incident above described is attributed by her niece (Anna Lefroy), writing many years later, to the year 1799 or 1800, when Jane was on a tour in Devonshire with her mother and sister, and other writers have drawn from it the inference that from this heart distress came the inability to create, and that it thus accounted for the long interval during which she wrote nothing at all. This hardly seems likely, or at all events there were many other causes equally likely, such as the impossibility of getting her MSS. published, which may have militated against her adding to them, and her own father's death may have been a shock from which she was slow to recover. There is a cryptic sentence in the correspondence of 1808 which seems to show that her heart was at that time touched, and that she expected to meet someone who was an object of great interest to her. She was then staying at Godmersham, and writes--
"I have been so kindly pressed to stay longer here, in consequence of an offer of Henry's to take me back some time in September, that, not being able to detail all my objections to such a plan, I have felt myself obliged to give Edward and Elizabeth one private reason for my wishing to be at home in July. They feel the strength of it, and say no more, and one can rely on their secrecy. After this I hope we shall not be disappointed of our friend's visit; my honour as well as my affection will be concerned in it."
If these words had occurred some years earlier, they would seem to point directly to that visitor whose coming was hindered by death, but, according to the niece's account, they must have been written too long after this incident to have any bearing upon it. It may be, however, that Anna, being young at the time, and knowing of the affair only by hearsay, was mistaken; and in any case she does not authoritatively state the year as 1799, but believes it to have been about then. If, however, the first meeting had taken place in 1805 or 1806, this remark of Jane's might allude to it, for no one says that the death of the man in question took place immediately after she knew him, but only before there was a second meeting. Jane's own words, "my honour as well as my affection," point directly to some admirer, for she would feel that once having betrayed her own eagerness to her brother and sister-in-law, the fact of the visitor's not taking the trouble to come to see her would appear to them a direct slight. The reference can hardly have been to anything but a love-affair, and her own eagerness looks as if she were in earnest at last. If the words cannot be taken to refer to the known admirer, they must certainly have referred to some other; and as nothing more is heard of him, perhaps he did not come as she anticipated, and she, who had found it so difficult to take the proposals of others seriously, was herself mistaken when she was in earnest; but all this is mere conjecture.
Sir Walter Scott, in his review of Emma in the Quarterly, finds generally in Jane Austen's books a deficiency of what he considers romance, and he thus indicts her--
"One word, however, we must say in behalf of that once powerful divinity, Cupid, king of gods and men, who in these times of revolution, has been assailed, even in his own kingdom of romance, by the authors who were formerly his devoted priests. We are quite aware that there are few instances of first attachment being brought to a happy conclusion, and that it seldom can be so in a state of society so highly advanced as to render early marriages among the better classes acts, generally speaking, of imprudence. But the youth of this realm need not at present be taught the doctrines of selfishness. It is by no means their error to give the world, or the good things of the world, all for love; and before the authors of moral fiction couple Cupid indivisibly with calculating prudence, we would have them reflect that they may sometimes lend their aid to substitute more mean, more sordid, and more selfish motives of conduct, for the romantic feelings which their predecessors perhaps fanned into too powerful a flame. Who is it, that in his youth has felt a virtuous attachment, however romantic, or however unfortunate, but can trace back to its influence much that his character may possess of what is honourable, dignified, and disinterested?"With due deference to the opinion of the greatest romancer in English fiction, he begs the question when he inserts the words "however unfortunate." An unfortunate love-affair in youth exercises without doubt a lasting good effect on any man who has grit in him, it is the fortunate ones that, paradoxically, are often so unfortunate. Perhaps no word in the English language has ever been misused like poor "romance" Jane was not devoid of it, in almost every case she distinguishes between the real and the false, Marianne's silly girlish admiration for Willoughby, and Emma's purely imaginary inclination toward Frank Churchill, are alike shown to be false, and founded only on that fleeting attraction which both men and women in early youth feel for the admirable person of one of the opposite sex. There are many persons still who think that this first flush of passion is real romance; that a young man who, at the most susceptible moment of his,life, sees a pretty face, and falls a victim to it, perhaps even without ever having spoken to its possessor, has struck the real thing. This is to put love on the lowest basis of animalism. The beautiful girl, whatever the nature that lies beneath, is sought by a score of young men purely because she arouses in them their first instincts of manhood, but perhaps to no one of them is she the real mate. Love, that true deep attraction of the heart and mind, does not come so readily, nor is it induced by personal attractions without further knowledge, though it may well be enhanced by them. Many and many a man takes a rash step into marriage, solely on the ground of external attraction, to gratify a youthful impulse, and having himself fitted the harness to his shoulders, spends the rest of his life in accommodating himself to it, without making the process of accommodation too patent to the eyes of the world. If he be a man at all, he realises that it was his own doing entirely, and he must bear the responsibility. Such marriages may, if the two be malleable and adaptable, turn out happily enough, especially if, as does sometimes happen, love comes after marriage, but the risk is a terrible one to take. The perpetuation of the race is the most urgent necessity, so nature takes care to secure it at all risks to the happiness of individuals ; and certainly were it not for the indulgence of this momentary madness of youth, which oddly enough Sir Walter seems to regard as a form of unselfishness, the world would have fewer married couples in it.
When Jane depicted the slow growth of Emma's love for Knightley, she drew wisely. Lord Brabourne has remarked that he wished Emma had married Frank Churchill, and herein he shows his own superficial view of human nature. Emma was a strong character strongly developed. She must either have married, for her own happiness, a man who was her master, or one whom she could completely guide; the world usually accords the latter kind of marriage to such natures, and in the character of Elinor Dashwood, who in some ways resembles Emma, we see this alternative match, for she marries the hopelessly weak Edward Ferrars; but Emma's was the better match; for many a man has discovered for himself that when a strong nature finds its master it gives a far higher and nobler love and obedience than that given by a shallow one whose opinions and ideas are merely wisps of fancy. Emma recognised that Knightley was her master, his quiet audacity, his failure to join in the general paan of flattery she received, his manliness in controlling his own feelings, appealed to her, and we may feel sure that her self-surrender just gave that finishing touch of softening to her nature which it needed; as a loving wife with full confidence in the judgment and principle of the man she had chosen, she would grow softer and kindlier every day of her life. She and Frank Churchill would very soon have been disgusted with each other, for he was not so weak as to have surrendered entirely to her authority, and constant friction would have been the result of their mating. Jane Austen does not make her ideal marriage a mere cementing of friendship, she recognises that to be perfect it must have that element of personal attraction which, to fastidious minds, alone makes marriage possible. Mr. Knightley was Emma's friend and adviser from the first, but not until her inclination for him was revealed in a lightning flash did the idea of marrying him enter her head. The difference between this personal inclination and the fantasy of youth is, that what is cause in the one is effect in the other. In the case of real love, the personal appearance is loved because of the personality behind it; in the spurious attraction the personal appearance is the first consequence, and the character behind it is idealised, with the constant result of woeful disillusionment. In one place Jane shows how fully she realised the difference between the true and the false by a little saying, "Three and twenty--a period when, if a man chooses a wife, he generally chooses ill."
In the softest and most tender of her books, Persuasion, she gives a beautiful picture of a girl's real love, a love which lasted through time and brought out what was best in the character, and in one of the most charming scenes in this novel, Anne Elliot, the heroine, gives her views on men's and women's constancy thus--
"'Your [men's] feelings may be the strongest,' replied Anne, 'but the same spirit of analogy will authorise me to assert that ours are the most tender. Man is more robust that woman, but he is not longer lived; which exactly explains my view of the nature of their attachments. Nay, it would be too hard upon you if it were otherwise. You have difficulties, and privations, and dangers enough to struggle with. You are always labouring and toiling, exposed to every risk and hardship. Your home, country, friends, all quitted. Neither time, nor health, nor life to be called your own. It would be too hard indeed if (with a faltering voice) woman's feelings were to be added to all this."'This, in spite of its somewhat glorified view of an ordinary man's career, is very touching, and still more so what follows--
"'We can never expect to prove anything upon such a point. It is a difference of opinion which does not admit of proof. We each begin probably with a little bias towards our own sex; and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle. . . . I hope to do justice to all that is felt by you--I believe you capable of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion and to every domestic forbearance, so long as--if I may be allowed the expression--so long as you have an object. I mean while the woman you love lives and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone."Natures which set their all on the chance of such a high throw as the demand for a marriage combining personal attraction and real suitability of character, know well that it is not likely that they will win; people who ask only for personal attraction, and risk all the rest, are in different case. But it is remarkable how the growing generation of men are learning to look below the surface and to take some trouble to find out the character of the girl who has attracted them before binding themselves; men, even young men, do not rush into marriage with the same lack of all self-control that a previous generation did. With the evaporation of the sentimentality of the Victorian period there has come also a far higher ideal of marriage, and a man demands more of his wife than evanescent personal attractions.
Though Jane set love at a high altitude, she was perfectly free from false sentiment or silly sentimentality. She says in one place of a man who loves hopelessly, "It is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sorts of disappointments kill anybody."
And her delightful sense of humour shows up in an inimitable light the foolish weakness of a girl suffering from a purely imaginary love-affair. The occasion is after the disillusionment of poor sentimental Harriet as to the real feelings of Mr. Elton, whom she had been encouraged by Emma to regard as an unexpressed lover."Harriet came one morning to Emma with a small parcel in her hand, and after sitting down and hesitating thus began--
"'Miss Woodhouse, if you are at leisure, I have something that I should like to tell you; a sort of confession to make--and then you know it will be over.'This is pure comedy!
"Emma was a good deal surprised, but begged her to speak. . . .
"'How could I be so long fancying myself--,' cried Harriet warmly. 'It seems like madness! I can see nothing at all extraordinary in him now, I do not care whether I meet him or not, except that of the two I had rather not see him; and indeed I would go any distance round to avoid him, but I do not envy his wife in the least; I neither admire her nor envy her as I have done. She is very charming, I daresay, and all that, but I think her very ill-tempered and disagreeable; I shall never forget her look the other night. However, I assure you, Miss Woodhouse, I wish her no evil. No, let them be ever so happy together, it will not give me another moment's pang; and, to convince you that I have been speaking the truth, I am now going to destroy--what I ought to have destroyed long ago--what I ought never to have kept; I know that very well (blushing as she spoke). However, now I will destroy it all, and it is my particular wish to do it in your presence, that you may see how rational I am grown. Cannot you guess what this parcel holds?' said she with a conscious look.
"'Not the least in the world. Did he ever give you anything?'
"'No, I cannot call them gifts, but they are things that I have valued very much.'
"She held the parcel towards her and Emma read the words, 'Most precious treasures' on the top. Her curiosity was greatly excited. Harriet unfolded the parcel and she looked on with impatience. Within abundance of silver paper was a pretty little Tunbridgeware box, which Harriet opened; it was well lined with the softest cotton; but excepting the cotton, Emma saw only a small piece of court-plaister.
"Now,' said Harriet, 'you must recollect.'
"'No, indeed, I do not.'
"Dear me! I should not have thought it possible that you could forget what passed in this very room about court-plaister, one of the very last times we ever met in it. . . . Do not you remember his cutting his finger with your new pen-knife, and your recommending court-plaister? But, as you had none about you, and knew I had, you desired me to supply him; and so I took mine out, and cut him a piece; but it was a great deal too large, and he cut it smaller, and kept playing some time with what was left before he gave it back to me. And so then, in my nonsense, I could not help making a treasure of it; so I put it by, never to be used, and looked at it now and then as a great treat.'
"My dearest Harriet!' cried Emma, putting her hands before her face, and jumping up, . . . 'And so you actually put this piece of court-plaister by for his sake,'. . . and secretly she added to herself, 'Lord bless me when should I ever have thought of putting by in cotton a piece of court-plaister that Frank Churchill had been pulling about! I never was equal to this.'
"'Here,' resumed Harriet, turning to her box again, 'here is something still more valuable,--I mean that has been more valuable,--because this is what did really once belong to him, which the court-plaister never did.'
"Emma was quite eager to see this superior treasure. It was the end of an old pencil, the part without any lead.
"This was really his,' said Harriet. 'Do not you remember one morning? . . . I forget exactly the day . . . he wanted to make a memorandum in his pocketbook; it was about spruce beer . . . and he wanted to put it down; but when he took out his pencil there was so little lead that he soon cut it all away, and it would not do, so you lent him another, and this was left upon the table as good for nothing. But I kept my eye upon it; and, as soon as I dared, caught it up, and never parted with it again from that moment.'
"'My poor dear Harriet! and have you actually found happiness in treasuring up these things?'
"Yes, simpleton as I was!--but I am quite ashamed of it now, and wish I could forget as easily as I can burn them. It was very wrong of me, you know, to keep any remembrances after he was married. I knew it was--but had not resolution enough to part with them.'"
In Jane Austen's day there certainly was an openness in the arrangements about marriage that jars on our more reticent minds. Of course it is undeniable that at that time a girl's only vocation, unless she happened to be a genius, was marriage, but the way in which suitability as to means and position were frequently considered as of all importance, and love merely as a secondary consideration, is slightly perturbing. Jane Austen's high ideal of marriage must have been rarer then than at the present time. Perhaps the best example of the shameless discussion of the maringe de convennnce in the novels is the interview between Elinor Dashwood and her brother, when Colonel Brandon has shown some slight attention to her. Her brother begins by asking--
"'Who is Colonel Brandon? Is he a man of fortune?'The "prior attachment" was that to his own brother-in-law, Edward Ferrars, for whom his wife hoped to get a better match, and as a matter of fact the man in question, Colonel Brandon, was not in love with Elinor, but with her impulsive sister, Marianne, who was wasting away under the slights of Willoughby. Of her, her brother kindly remarks--
"'Yes, he has very good property in Dorsetshire.'
"'I am glad of it. He seems a most gentlemanlike man; and I think, Elinor, I may congratulate you on the prospect of a very respectable establishment in life.'
"'Me, brother! what do you mean?'
"He likes you. I observed him narrowly, and am convinced of it. What is the amount of his fortune?'
"'I believe about two thousand a year.'
"'Two thousand a year! Then working himself up to a pitch of enthusiastic generosity, he added, 'Elinor, I wish with all my heart it were twice as much for your sake.'
"'Indeed, I believe you,' replied Elinor, 'but I am very sure that Colonel Brandon has not the smallest wish of marrying me.'
"'You are mistaken, Elinor; you are very much mistaken. A very little trouble on your side secures him. Perhaps just at present he may be undecided; the smallness of your fortune may make him hang back; his friends may all advise him against it. But some of those little attentions and encouragements which ladies can so easily give will fix him in spite of himself. And there can be no reason why you should not try for him. It is not to be supposed that any prior attachment on your side--in short you know, as to an attachment of that kind it is quite out of the question, the objections are insurmountable--Colonel Brandon must be the man; and no civility shall be wanting on my part to make him pleased with you and your family. It is a match that must give universal satisfaction.'"
"'At her time of life, anything of an illness destroys the bloom for ever! Hers has been a very short one! She was as handsome a girl last September as ever I saw, and as likely to attract the men. There was something in her style of beauty to please them particularly. I remember Fanny used to say she would marry sooner and better than you did; she will be mistaken, however. I question whether Marianne now will marry a man worth more than five or six hundred a year at the utmost, and I am very much deceived if you do not do better.'And John Dashwood's idea of the barter of women for so much, according to their attractions, though it differed not in essentials from that of a Circassian slave-dealer, was quite an ordinary one. The unblushing eagerness with which any heiress was literally pursued, the desperate devices to get portionless daughters married, doubtless have their counterparts now, but they are not so prominent; portionless daughters of wit and talent can make lives for themselves, independent of matrimony, and heiress hunters have at least the decency to pretend they are in love.In view of the ideas of her times, Jane's ideal of marriage stands out conspicuously. She wanted all her heroines to have every probability of happiness in the marriage state, and though perhaps she did not consciously set to work to consider what would make them so in so many words, it is remarkable that certain points which, from her own observations of the human race, were the best foundations for married happiness, are to be found in every one of the marriages of her principal characters. The first essential which we have already touched upon was suitability of character. Poor Marianne Dashwood and the ardent Willoughby would have tried each other desperately with the vehemence of their enthusiasm; in six months they would have loathed each other as ardently as they had loved, therefore Marianne is not allowed to marry Willoughby, but mates with Colonel Brandon, the sort of man who would exercise an unconscious influence over her, teaching her self-control, and who would be kindly indulgent to her whims and wishes, not clashing with them on his own account.
"Elinor tried very seriously to convince him that there was no likelihood of her marrying Colonel Brandon, but it was an expectation of too much pleasure to himself to be relinquished. . . . He had just compunction enough for having done nothing for his sisters himself to be exceedingly anxious that everyone else should do a great deal."
The second essential, which is fulfilled in every case of the principal characters in the novels, is that the marriages are real unions, not those accidental associations which are based on imagination. Her men and women get to know each other thoroughly by constant intercourse, until the faults and virtues, the defects and abilities, are clear and plain. Jane knew that real love may begin by attraction, but must be built upon knowledge. In not a single case is a pretty face or a handsome person the reason for a man's or woman's falling in love. Darcy considers Elizabeth Bennet only "tolerable" when he first sees her, it is when he begins to care for her that he notes her "fine eyes." Though Catherine Morland was a pretty girl, it was not that which won Henry Tilney, but her naive adoration of himself, and her sweet sincerity. Edmund Bertram runs after Miss Crawford for a time, but it is the excellence of Fanny's mind which gives him his life's happiness, and so on through all.
The third essential in Jane's mind was evidently that the love of the two should be mutual. In every case her heroine is genuinely in love before she gives her consent to marriage. Fanny Bertram of course knew her own love for Edmund long before his eyes were opened to the need he had for her. Anne Elliot had bitterly regretted for many weary years the fatal compliance with the wishes of her friends which had separated he, from the man she loved, and when he returns only to pay attentions to another, and she imagines she has lost him for ever, she still never swerves in her loyalty to him. Poor Elinor has the mortification of hearing from the lips of a rival that Edward Ferrars is engaged to her, but still her choice never falters. For women of this kind, women of fine character, marriage without love is impossible; in the abstract it is not a necessity, as it often seems to be to a man; if they cannot have the one man they love, they will infinitely prefer to remain single. We must admit that, as Anne Elliot says, the power of loving longest remains with women, only we should amend to the extent of saying with the noblest women.
Many men hold that woman's love is not essential to a happy marriage, so long as they are in love with the woman they make their wife they think that her love is not necessary. This arises purely from want of imagination. They themselves, marrying a woman they passionately admire, start with all the glamour and glory which suffices to veil the difficult beginnings of a menange á deux; but the woman, who enters without this help, has to expend an immense amount of patience and self-control over wearisome domestic details, which would be transformed into pure joy if she also saw through a glorified atmosphere. A match where the woman does not love is very hard on her. It is, of course, perfectly true that the ardent love of a man has often won a woman's love in return; many a happy marriage has sprung from this beginning; but any man who is not more selfish than the rest of his sex, should try to assure himself that the love is there before marriage.
Of course to a mall it is incredible that girls will consent to marry when they do not love; why should they? One knows it is not always the prospect of a home and maintenance, one would scorn to assess woman's nature at so low a rate. There is no real explanation, though possibly dense ignorance and girlish impulse toward the excitement, and the trivial accessories of a bride's position, may be the most usual contributory causes. If this is so, as woman increases in intelligence and reasonable knowledge, that is to say, as she becomes more fit to be a real mate to man, so will man find it increasingly difficult to persuade her into a one-sided-love marriage, oftentimes so disastrous to both, and at the best such a makeshift for what might be.
This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.